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The flaw in factory resets

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A new service allows users to sell old phones and tablets but, as LIRON SEGEV reports, deleting information before selling a device does not wipe your slate clean

 

 

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Every phone and tablet has an option under Settings that allows you to Reset Phone to Factory Defaults. When activating this option the phone warns you that it will delete all your information, pics, music, e-mail, apps and everything else that you have loaded on the device. Essentially the phone is reset to the point where it came out of the factory and ready to be setup for the first time.

But is this good enough ? Is your information really deleted?

The shocking answer is: NO.

What happens when you delete ?

When we create a file, such as when we snap a new pic or create a new document, the operating system creates the file by storing it in bits and pieces in blocks on the device’s storage – be it internal phone storage or SD Card. It look similar to this:

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In order to find which blocks make up the file, the operating system creates an index which identifies the bits that make up the complete file.

When you delete a file, the operating system removes not the content inside the blocks, but removes the reference to those blocks from the Index. However all the bits in the blocks still remain on the hard drive and are marked as “free” so that new files can overwrite those bits. It’s the equivalent of removing the chapter name from the Index of the book, but still leaving the contents of the chapter inside the book – if you page through, you will find that chapter even without the index.

And this is where the problem arrises.

There are applications that allow techies to skip over the index and view the bits inside those blocks so they can recover any file whose blocks haven’t been overwritten by new files.

Does Factory Reset leaves content behind?

Yes.

This is confirmed by the team at security firm Avast, who purchased 20 phones on eBay and ran their software though them that have been reset to Factory Defaults. They discovered over 40,000 photos (yes, including those sexting pics), 750 e-mails, 250 contacts with names and addresses and various personal files.

Stefan Tanase, Senior Security Researcher, Global Research & Analysis Team, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Kaspersky Lab confirms this too:

“A staggering amount of personal data is usually left on devices after a factory reset is performed. Most often these devices end up being sold on eBay(-like) websites, and might end up in the hands of someone with bad intentions, who can recover the data. Users don’t realise that they leave behind e-mails or SMS messages, contact information or even personal pictures and videos shot with the phone camera. Essentially, all data stored on the device is recoverable to some extent”

How do you do you ensure that your data is actually deleted ?

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Simply doing a factory reset clearly is not the answer. If you want to ensure that none of your sensitive pics or information land up all over the Internet, you should Encrypt your device before doing Factory Reset

This sounds very “James-Bondy” but it s a simple step that you need to do with the tool  included with your phone. When you run the encryption tool, it protects your files from prying eyes which goes a long way to stop anyone with $50 software from getting a hold of your  family pics.

Each phone manufacturer has their own way of dealing with encryption:

Obviously before engaging in this, make sure you read and understand what is involved and back up your phone (do not lose the PIN either.)

If your device doesn’t have encryption built into the settings, then you can download several applications from the App Stores that allow you to do that.

The obvious solution would be for the mobile phone manufacturers to have encryption built into their Factory Reset process, however as Stefan Tanase  points out that the mobile phone manufacturers chose not to do this because of:

1. Lack of security awareness – both users and manufacturers generally don’t realise the importance of securely erasing data.

2. Speed – erasing a storage device securely takes more time, and the reality is that most users would rather have their device quickly perform the factory reset.

The more we trust our mobile phones with out lives, the more we should be weary of just how vulnerable these devices are. We need to be more aware of the digital fingerprints we are leaving behind.

* Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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